“Take Off to the Academy Awards”: In 1986, Night Flight picked our favorites to win the Oscar

By on February 8, 2017

In preparation for the upcoming 89th Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th, we’re taking a look back at Night Flight’s “Take Off to the Academy Awards” from March 21, 1986, comparing the films and artists up for the big prize that year to others that were left out, and seeing how they reflect upon the nominees before us 31 years since then. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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Without wasting any time, the first performer this episode showcases is the one that seems to have a reserved seat at almost every single Academy Awards ceremony, Meryl Streep, up for her role as Karen Dinesen in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa.

Her performance was already cited by the Los Angeles Film Critics in their 1985 poll, and had been a runner-up winner with the New York Film Critics’ Circle as well.

That same year, Streep had drawn praise for a smaller film, Plenty, directed by Fred Schepisi, who would direct her to another Academy Award nomination in 1988 in the docudrama A Cry in the Dark.

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This year, Streep is nominated for playing the title role in Stephen Frears’ comic biopic Florence Foster Jenkins.

In 1985, while shut out of the major awards, Frears was getting praise for his scrappy gay punk romance My Beautiful Laundrette, starring future Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Back in ’86, Night Flight assembled their own panel of judges to pick winners from the nominees, and in the Best Actress category, they tied between Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple and Geraldine Page for The Trip to Bountiful.

Page would go on to win the statuette, and it’s the only pick our panel had that matched with the Academy.

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At the time of the 1986 Academy Awards, smaller film companies and art-house films were beginning to make inroads on the major categories. Island Alive, a label founded by music industry giants Chris Blackwell and Shep Gordon, released Kiss of the Spider Woman, which received four nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for William Hurt, and Best Director for Hector Babenco.

Shortly after the Kiss release, the partners split up the venture into two separate companies, and Island on their own would release The Trip to Bountiful, which garnered two more nominations for Blackwell’s team.

Even Cannon, the studio known for quickly shot exploitation films that made Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme superstars, managed to get Oscar notice with three nominations for Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, including a Best Actor nod for Jon Voight.

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By comparison, the Weinstein brothers’ Miramax was in business in 1985, but years away from being an awards-bait powerhouse.

Their most acclaimed release of that year was Leon Ichaso’s music drama Crossover Dreams with Rubén Blades, which you can see clips of in our “Latin Sounds” episode.

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In the Best Director category, Night Flight’s panel chose Akira Kurosawa to win for Ran, his epic reinterpretation of King Lear. It was the only directing nomination the Japanese legend ever received from the Academy, though he did win Best Foreign-Language Film awards for Rashomon and Dersu Uzula.

In an odd convergence, Kurosawa had also written the original story for Runaway Train twenty years before, which was reworked by others for the finished film without his input.

While Sydney Pollack [looks like we spelled his name wrong back in ’86] ultimately won the Best Director prize for Out of Africa, Kurosawa would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy at the 62nd ceremony in 1990.

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Of the five nominees for Best Director that year, the only one still living is Australian Peter Weir, whose most recent film, the WWII POW escape drama The Way Back with Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell, was released in 2010.

Steven Spielberg was most conspicuously not nominated for Best Director that year, despite the fact that his film The Color Purple, received eleven other nominations, the most of any film in contention.

Despite the initial momentum, his film would set a record with Herbert Ross’ The Turning Point as the most-nominated film without a single win.

Spielberg would finally win a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Schindler’s List in 1994, and was most recently nominated in the directing category for Lincoln in 2013.

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The five films nominated for Best Picture — The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, Out of Africa, and Witness — have all managed to hold on to critical respectability years later, though it’s safe to say their popularity has waned over the decades.

There are other films from 1985, such as Back to the Future, Brazil, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, which were nominated in Best Original Screenplay, that have seen their reputations increase by comparison, and many films of that year that are still talked about today — After Hours, Desert Hearts, Lost in America, Shoah, and To Live and Die in L.A. — weren’t even nominated.

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The lineup of films and stars nominated this year have some degree of symmetry and expansion with the 1986 ceremony toppers. While there was one movie centered on people of color — The Color Purple – this year offers three: Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight.

The epic biopic, represented by Out of Africa in 1985, is represented today by Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge and Lion.

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Back then, two Best Actress nominees played real figures: Meryl Streep as a slightly fictionalized version of writer Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, and Jessica Lange as singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams.

This year offers three Best Actress nominees drawn from real life: Streep again as Florence Foster Jenkins, Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, and Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in Loving.

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Damien Chazelle, director of the most-nominated film this year, La La Land, has repeatedly cited the musicals of Jacques Demy as an influence on his big hit.

Demy was still alive and working during 1985, and released an ambitious but lesser-known musical that year, Parking, a modernized version on the tale of Orpheus, which itself was conceived as tribute to a film and filmmaker dear to Demy, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee.

In another odd convergence, Demy’s wife, Agnes Varda, released a film that same year that also missed Academy recognition, Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire, who won the French equivalent of the Oscar (the Cesar) for her performance, and would later become involved and have a daughter with the Best Actor winner that season, Kiss of the Spider Woman star William Hurt!

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The Academy Awards ceremony and telecast is not just an event to publicize the film industry, it is also in a sense a significant fundraiser for the most dominant art form of the 20th century and beyond.

The revenue generated from sponsorships and broadcasts and licensing helps to pay for an exhaustive archive of films and film literature available for public access, as well as preservation of early and rare films that have been in danger of being lost from damage or deterioration.

In short, the three hours plus that we sit at home and either applaud or snark over each year have made it possible to save early forgotten works by women and minority filmmakers left behind by history, to provide 35mm prints to museums and other programmers, and to maintain the legacies, good and regrettable, that this medium has generated, for everyone the world over to revisit.

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So while not all of us at Night Flight will be watching the show on February 26th, or the films in contention, we’ll be benefiting in other ways from this night of recognition for years to come.

Watch “Take Off to the Academy Awards,” see more clips of the contenders, and learn about our panel’s other category picks, right now on Night Flight Plus!

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About Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck is a writer and cultural historian best known as the Movie Geek from Comedy Central's "Beat the Geeks." He was an associate producer and researcher for Robert Rodriguez' "The Director's Chair" interview series on the El Rey network. He created the eclectic blog The Projector Has Been Drinking, and his screening series Cinema Tremens revived many rarely-exhibited films, featuring interviews with their creators and champions. He has recorded more than ten DVD commentary tracks, and has been a memorable guest on many podcasts. He cites discovering "Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains" on "Night Flight" as one of the significant milestones of his cultural evolution.